Biden orders Justice Dept. to stop renewing private prison contracts
Washington DC – President Joe Biden in one of his first steps to address racial inequality has directed the Justice Department not to renew contracts with privately operated prisons, advancing a priority of civil rights organizations.
The directive was included in a batch of executive actions Biden took Tuesday that the White House said were aimed at increasing racial equity.
"This has been a long battle by many of us to end the contracts that the Justice Department has with private prisons, and we convinced the Obama administration to do it. At the end, Trump came in and reversed it," Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said in an interview.
Biden, who was vice president to former President Barack Obama, said, "The executive order directs the attorney general to decline to renew contracts with privately operated criminal facilities, a step we started to take at the end of the Obama administration and was reversed under the previous administration."
In the executive order on prisons, Biden said a "disproportionate number" of people of color were incarcerated and the current system "does not make us safer."
The order states, "privately operated criminal detention facilities consistently underperform Federal facilities with respect to correctional services, programs, and resources. We should ensure that time in prison prepares individuals for the next chapter of their lives."
"We’re less than a week in, and the president is making good on his commitment to make racial justice central to his administration," Morial said.
Biden further directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to address discriminatory federal housing practices and issued a memorandum ordering the federal government to "prevent racism, xenophobia, and intolerance" against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Another memorandum directs federal agencies to work with American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nation leaders to develop and implement plans to strengthen their relationships.
Demelza Baer, director of public policy for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that the Obama-era fair housing rule that Biden appeared to be reinstating was a "huge milestone" for the civil rights community and "seeing that rolled back under the Trump administration was disheartening, to say the least."
Civil rights leaders say more needs to be done
Civil rights organizations acknowledged that Biden’s actions were first steps, but said that there remained need for future executive and legislative action, particularly on policing and criminal justice reforms.
For example, Biden’s order to phase out using private prisons does not extend to detention centers that are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security and primarily have undocumented immigrants.
"Where it falls short, and what we’ve asked for of this administration in our policy priorities is to abolish the use of private prisons whole cloth," Sakira Cook, program director for justice reform at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said.
Cook said that the organization has also advocated for a moratorium on the death penalty and the release of vulnerable populations from prisons amid the pandemic. "We hope that they will expand on their initiative to divert people away from the prison system," she said.
White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice told reporters that Biden is committed to working with Congress to build on the actions he took Tuesday, including on criminal justice reform and policing.
The racial equity actions signed were "just the beginning," Rice said.
"This is something that we have committed to addressing, and we will have more on criminal justice to say in the coming weeks, including on matters related to policing," she said.
Biden said that racial equity has to involve the whole government and cannot be limited to criminal justice reform.
"I firmly believe the nation is ready to change. But government has to change as well. We need to make equity and justice part of what we do every day. Today, tomorrow and every day," Biden said. "I promise you, we’re going to continue to make progress to eliminate systemic racism."
Cover photo: IMAGO / MediaPunch